Henry and the Chalk Dragon (a review)

Henry and the Chalk Dragon cover large

Henry and the Chalk Dragon, by Jennifer Trafton (Rabbit Room Press, 2017).

TIE YOUR SHOELACES.

i am not an impartial reviewer of this book. i’ve been agonizing over this, because i want to write a review worthy of the book itself, but the truth is that i adore Jennifer Trafton. She makes me want to be brave, and sometimes, with her whispered kindnesses in my heart, i can be.

Be brave. Be brave. Be brave, says Henry’s chivalry. It’s hard for him to be brave, too. He is a knight, but he is also an Artist, you see, and his wild imagination is hard to contain, and just as hard to let out. When he tries to draw nice brown bunnies calmly eating lettuce, the Work of Art inside him aches to draw bunnies that jump so high they tear holes in the clouds and land on Mars, or a rocket-powered bunny with laser eyes. His teacher and principal don’t know what to do with him. He has one best friend, but is afraid the other kids won’t understand—even his best friend doesn’t always. So when one day he draws a magnificent jungle-green dragon on the back of his blackboard-painted door and it runs away, Henry is more worried than anything, even though his dragon thrills him. Suddenly, the Work of Art he has been hiding is out in the world for everyone to see.

i don’t know what i love best about this book—the chivalry, which is often funny (“Don’t feed girls to dragons”) and often cuts right to my own fears as an Artist; the golden trumpets of Jade’s bardic songs; the way Henry’s conflict with his best friend, and his dragon, and his Art, and his principal, all collide and swirl toward and past and around each other to resolve into beauty (the one moment with his dragon—oh! i might cry right now); Oscar and his pet octagon; their wonderful teacher Miss Pimpernel with her beaver-teeth hair (she was a superhero, you know)… i could go on for days.

My copy of this book has already been colored in. i couldn’t help it. After reading Henry, the colors won’t hold still. i am going to stop writing and go back to coloring—and then later today, i am going to go back to my own writing. Because when i am tempted to think i can’t, Henry’s chivalry tells me Tie your shoelaces.

Illustration by Benjamin Schipper. Coloring by me and Henry.

Henry and the Chalk Dragon releases April 4. You can preorder at the Rabbit Room—preorders come signed, and with two free coloring pages (but i do definitely recommend coloring in your book!).

Jennifer is also the author of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic. At last count i had bought twenty copies of this book so far. i love it with my whole heart. You should read that one, too.

At the top of the stairs, again.

Classes start up again on Monday, after a six-week break. Six weeks should be long enough, right? And there are factors, changes, which i know will make this semester different from last—and yet.

Ever since midterms of my first semester—a year and a half ago; how is this possible?—i have staved off stress-and-homework-induced panic attacks by writing words on my hands. They’re the words that called me down the stairs, the words which told me that it would be worth it. Three times over break i have looked down while washing my hands to see these words on my wrist when i have not written them there. The third occasion happened today. Do my eyes play tricks on me, seeing the phantom where they have so frequently seen the reality? Or am i being prepared for another death?

It hurts to die, but each time i’m raised again and i’m something new, something i don’t recognize, something i never expected.”

Last semester i stopped believing in resurrection. i didn’t want resurrection; i didn’t want even to survive. i just wanted sleep. i lived in a chemical suspension of exhaustion and adrenaline for two months. It took days to climb out of that grave.

i don’t know what this semester holds, but i hope to regain hope. And maybe, just maybe, one death at a time, i’ll learn to trust the coming resurrection.

A new writing class and an old ache

Three things happened today, all about writing. The first is that Jonathan Rogers’ Writing With Flannery O’Connor class started. The second was a Rabbit Room post which pierced me through. More

Finals, finally

This morning i intended to wake at 6:30 (and be coiffied and preened), spend time with Scripture and prayer and coffee after showering, and then dive into writing and reading. Instead, i hit snooze twice, made tea instead of coffee, and at 9:am, i am just about to begin today’s work. i have a whole book to read and internalize before the end of the week, when i hope to test out of one seminary class. Classes begin next Monday. i feel overwhelmed, and i know i did this to myself.

But in the mail this morning was my Molehill and a note from a Rabbit. That Molehill moved me to intercession, and the Rabbit-note moved me to tears and gave me the courage i needed to finally open an envelope i received before Christmas. i feared it—it lurked in the corner of my mind and whispered failure to me. It was the final exam for the class that broke me last semester. But after that note, i went to it. i held it in my hands. i poked my finger under the flap and tore it, then slipped the blue book from the envelope.

When i saw the grade, i laughed. When i saw the note at the end of my essay, i laughed again.

Then, a month and a half after the end of my first semester, i checked my grades online: An A in each class.

Grace. Hope. Resurrection.

End-of-semester gratitude

My first semester’s finals were yesterday. Oh, i am tired—and so, so grateful.

All last week i had reminders written all over my hands. Not reminders of things i’d need for the tests, but reminders that i would survive the process. Around my thumb and forefinger i wrote, “i have turned my back on my turning back.” Last night after my Hebrew final i collapsed into a chair and curled my fingers and saw how the words made a circle, turning back, then turning back again. And i had been telling myself over and over that i must not turn back, that as weary as i was i would reap a harvest if i did not give up. At that moment the words became true. i had turned my back on my turning back. It was accomplished. i knew that i had come far and could begin to gloan upon it. As we drove home afterwards, i could feel the semester receding behind me as if time was a place.

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i am grateful for:

  • Jonathan. Oh, Jonathan. He was on call all last week, and had finals and papers of his own (he has one final yet), but he took care of all our dinners (and the dishes) all week long so that i could study. He planned our Geek family night, too. Every time i cried that i could not, could not, could not, he told me i could. He prayed for me and pastored me and served me, my priest. Every day, he preaches to me the way of Christ to the church.
  • My beautiful Hebrew family, my classroom table-mates. Asher and i had an uproarious time studying together yesterday afternoon (we were both sleep-deprived and deliriously hilarious). Atarah brought us chocolate and little hand-written cards of appreciation last night. Gadi lets me mother him. i could not have asked for a better group of people. i never expected them. They are a gift of grace.
  • Dr. Dallaire, my Hebrew professor, has been an endless source of encouragement all semester long. Last night she gave me a hug i could live in and told me i’d better write to her in Hebrew while she’s on sabbatical. 🙂 She graded our finals before leaving last night and i had an email waiting for me when i got home. For the midterm and the final both she brought us food. And one of the questions was, “True or False? Dr. Dallaire loves chocolate!” 🙂 Again, i could never have expected her. i’m so grateful for her. Just knowing her (not to mention learning from her!) this semester was the best way to begin seminary i could imagine. She taught me that seminary is not scary, but an exhilarating, encouraging, enlarging adventure. i am keeping her forever.
  • Dr. Hess, my Pentateuch and Wisdom Lit professor. i learned so much in his class, and much of it was about myself. His style of teaching and grading stretched me, and is stretching me, and i am better for it, and i will be better yet. He was an instrument of sanctification in G-d’s hands. Again, it was grace that placed me in his class this first semester.
  • My darling amanuensis Rachel. i texted her crying so many times this last week. She prayed for me and brought me ice cream and ginger soda and hugs the night before finals. She wrote me haikus to keep me going. She shares my heart.
  • Andrew Peterson‘s song “Day By Day,” and Josh Garrels‘ “White Owl,” both of which tethered my heart and my mind as i studied. i played them for hours. Hours.
  • Pete Peterson and the Budge-Nuzzard. Pete’s witness that faith does not always end in despair gave me the courage to begin seminary. The Budge-Nuzzard, in ways known only to Divine Grace, became my own story as i struggled to finish my first semester well. The fact that the story is yet unfinished may itself have been a grace, as i was able to see myself in it without the distraction of pressure or fear regarding where the story was going. The first time i read Hind’s Feet on High Places, i was too afraid of resolution to finish. In the Budge-Nuzzard, uncertainty came alongside my uncertainty and helped me along. i know that a story this weird (but i am so weird!) is an unlikely candidate for spiritual direction and courage. But—
  • My merciful Abba loves me so well. He’s close to me when i struggle. He hides me in His heart. He rejoices over me with singing. He stoops down to make me great. i so often seek life everywhere but in Him. He is gracious, and He grows me in grace. He’s teaching me to rest in Him. And He knows that i am made to respond to stories; He made me that way. So when i cry out for stories to help me along, He never shames me for needing them but instead He provides grace upon grace, and gives me stories to enlarge my heart.

This sounds like an Oscars speech. But seriously—i am so deeply grateful.

My list of things to do today includes “read a poem,” “take a walk,” and “blat at someone.” i am eager to dive back into fiction-reading (and writing). i might take a nap. i need to buy groceries. Facebook will wait until tomorrow. Short-story-writing will wait until Friday or even next week (yeah, i never did any writing in November, and i am not really sorry). For today, the theme is gratitude and peace.

The term is over. The holidays have begun. (Yes, that’s a Lewis reference, although this semester break is only a foretaste.)

Baruch atah, Adonai.

Tomorrow, the end

Now, however, having squeezed from within me all that was happy and glad, I am left with my task at hand and the troubling knowledge that my wicked progeny is yet abroad. I can tarry here no longer, and lo, indeed does the road call to me now. I step upon it, and though I cannot see its end, I know that the Enthoovian, all arumpled and bescroached, awaits me whence it leads.”

“Tse el HaEnthuvi!”
— “Forth to the Enthoovian!” (my translation into Hebrew of this gleeful, if blearily confusing, encouragement from dear Jouncey most sage)

All this to say, my first semester’s finals are tomorrow. i wish for a Sha-Una of my own, salty taste or no. The Leapers Wee are gathering and i have no spiny pods to stay their menace.

Practice resurrection.
Practice resurrection.
Practice resurrection.

The Budge-Nuzzard and the coming resurrection

It hurts to die but each time I’m raised again and I’m something new, something I don’t recognize, something I never expected. I’ve gotten no better at avoiding the pain, but maybe, just maybe I’m getting better at trusting in the coming resurrection.”

I have indeed gone to action. That sweet abode of my arrival is now but a dollop of memory within my upper head. I must confess that in my weaker moments, I have longed for it and three times now have turned back to seek my solace within. But at length I have turned my back on my turning back and hence have come far and now gloan upon it.”

You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on You,
because he trusts in You.
Trust in the L-RD forever,
for the L-RD GOD is an everlasting rock.”

Finals are on Tuesday. i am tired. i am struggling to focus. i can’t remember why i began this journey, one which terrified me and thrilled me only three months ago and now just makes me bone-weary. How did the first half of the semester, full of excitement and voorish glee, turn into this slog? i wonder: Can i make it? i wonder: Do i want to?

“i hope it’s good for your soul.”

Well, you weren’t kidding. i wasn’t thinking at all of my soul when i started; that exhortation took me by surprise. i didn’t even burn everything i own, but it is hard anyway. And one of the most remarvelant surprises of this journey has been discovering what a source of strength and spiritual formation lurks in the ludicrous lobidiousness of The Budge-Nuzzard.

i do want to turn back. That sweet abode of my arrival seems so homely and comforting. But i will keep turning my back on my turning back. If there is a resurrection at the end of this, i want it. G-d is an everlasting rock and i can trust Him to help calm my mind and tempt it not to wander. And maybe, just maybe, one death at a time, i’ll learn to trust the coming resurrection.

Next week, i will have come far enough to begin the gloaning.

First death

This week i had my first opportunity to truly practice resurrection.

My first attempt at writing this post sounded much too heroically tragic. i came face to face with the wretchedness of my own pride on Tuesday, and it unraveled me. i knew i needed to write about it—to be honest. But my first instinct when i began typing was to glorify myself even in failure.

i am smarter than anyone i know. Call it perfectionism; say i am a high achiever and have high standards for myself, but the truth is that i am prideful. Tuesday my mental image of my perfect self was fractured by a grade i did not expect. It felt unfair. It felt surreal. Surely, it was a mistake. It was not. i failed to earn a grade worthy of myself, and in so doing i was forced to face what was in my heart that i should consider certain grades worthy of me, rather than humbling myself to make my work worthy of such grades.

When i began seminary—even as i was applying—i held clutched in my hands the hope of resurrection. i reminded myself that resurrection requires death. The first time i missed a single point on a quiz i told myself this. It is okay to die. Dying is a prerequisite for the remaking you desire. But even while saying this, i was working against myself. i had flung myself down the steep steps of seminary (see how noble that sounds?), but rather than allowing G-d’s grace to tandem jump with me, or to catch me at the bottom, or even to let me crash that i may be resurrected, i was blowing frantically at the ground as if i could keep myself aloft through my own effort.

To be blindsided by this grade was a grace. It sent me to my face, wracked with shame, and it forced me to acknowledge my pride. i wanted to be resurrected? to be remade? My redeemer (baruch atah, Adonai!) is so eager to redeem me that He will not wait even a whole semester before beginning the process.

As i lay on my face in the chapel, weeping into the carpet, i knew i had a choice. i could feel sorry for myself, even paint myself as a victim of unfairness. Or i could own my sin, celebrate this first death, and look forward to resurrection.

On my hands i wrote truth, truth that after repeated washings has not yet faded.

It hurts to die but each time i’m raised again and i’m something new, something i don’t recognize, something i never expected.”

Practice resurrection.”

Go now with me and define my becoming.”

“Love.”

Today i was listening to Sixpence None the Richer—the album which came out as i was beginning my undergraduate, the most beautiful album i’ve ever heard, an album soaked through with despair and grief and pain and, yes, hope of healing—and was met again by grace.

The Harvester is near. His blade is on your skin
To plant a new beginning: Well then, let the cut begin.”

Resurrection requires death. But death, if i trust His good intentions more than my own sufficiency, will always result in resurrection.

Let the cut begin.

Shielot

i’m two weeks into Hebrew. Last week, vowel markings kicked my butt. This week, i am too busy forgetting plural pronouns to worry about vowels, which mostly work now anyway. (Maybe the key to learning is to just keep moving forward, whether things make sense or not.)

At Denver Seminary, Hebrew is taught as a second language. Classes are partially immersive. A friend told me before i started that the thing about immersive language acquisition is that i’ll feel like i’m failing. Every day, i’ll feel like i’m failing. And every day, i’ll fail a little less.

Practice resurrection.

But it is coming. i can feel it taking root, even if the shoots are slow to appear. The sounds wind their way around my mind, making new places to grow.

Yesh li shielah.

“i have a question.” That phrase is printed on the back of my name plaque, so that i can find answers when i am puzzled in class. But that phrase is insufficient. i had to teach myself some new ones.

Yesh li shielot.

i have questions.

Yesh li shielot ravot.

i have many questions.

Yesh li kol-shielot.

i have every question, all the questions.

But look—i know how to make a sentence, to ask for help, to laugh at my own ignorance.

Practice resurrection.

i’m getting there.

Practice resurrection.

T-minus nineteen hours

Deus vult.
If You can deceive me, You may.

Practice resurrection.
Practice resurrection.
Practice resurrection.

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